It was just another Saturday night in 1984: inside the booth at the CJSR studio on the University of Alberta campus, a revolution in sound was preparing to rise up through the airwaves and usher in a multitude of new styles of urban music completely unfamiliar to most Edmontonians. For anyone who cared to venture into the unknown, a street-toughened yet smooth operator known simply as T.E.D.D.Y. awaited them behind the microphone, ready to win over a whole new generation of listeners on the other side with groovy beats and clever hooks. As the mysterious DJ dropped the needle onto his first record, hip-hop music began emanating its infant steps to radio dials across the city, and with that first scratch of the record, a new community was born.
Strike up a conversation with anyone who is anyone in Edmonton's hip-hop community, and invariably, T.E.D.D.Y.'s name will come up at some point. With the amount of innovators in the latter half of the '80s that were responsible for pioneering the city's hip-hop scene into what it is today, his might not always be the first name mentioned, but it never gets lost in the mix — in fact, no single person receives more gratitude for their early contributions.
Better known as Teddy Pemberton to those who know him best, the Brooklyn ex-pat moved to Edmonton and quickly set up shop with CJSR in 1980, affording the opportunity to broadcast with a station that didn't follow the conventional guidelines of popular radio. By the time 1984 rolled around and the station acquired their license to operate on an FM transmitter, Pemberton introduced his new show called The Black Experience in Sound, which aired during the 10 p.m. to midnight time slot on Saturday nights.
At the time, the cultural significance was patently apparent — up until that point, radio stations in Edmonton only stuck to familiar genres of music, with urban forms like hip-hop, funk, and R&B getting lost entirely in a sea of hair metal and synth pop. TBES provided many young Edmontonians their first opportunity to hear the sounds that were coming out of an urban Mecca like New York.
“Most praise had to go to the DJ called T.E.D.D.Y. because he was broadcasting on CJSR [...] as far back as '84 when the FM license came through. But definitely in the late '80s and then resuming in the '90s, he was bringing hip-hop music to Edmontonians and giving them access to things that they never would've gotten otherwise,” said Minister Faust, a former member of the Edmonton-based Militant Rap Party and current host of The Terrordome on CJSR.
Acquiring hip-hop music in any form, be it cassette tape or vinyl record — even material put out by acts that were beginning to achieve mainstream popularity like Kurtis Blow and Run-D.M.C. — was a rather burdensome task in Edmonton during the mid '80s. Pemberton's program not only broke down the barriers of broadcasting urban music in the city, but saved listeners the trouble of having to go out and expend their best efforts trying to track down certain records.
“There were just a few places were you could buy that stuff at that time,” Faust said. “Eventually, I think by around '88, you'd start to see more records and tapes show up in other stores. But if T.E.D.D.Y. hadn't have been broadcasting stuff, they wouldn't have heard; they certainly weren't going to hear it on commercial radio. They'd maybe have a song around, say, 1986 — maybe 'Walk This Way,' but that was only because of Aerosmith.”
Once Edmonton's youth had been exposed to the sounds of hip-hop music, the next logical step over the next few years was to try and harness that energy into putting together their own beats and rhymes.
Edmonton-born MC Errol “E-Dot” Henry, still a young man during the late '80s, is a former member of the 1-8-2 Crew. He credits fellow crew members for showing him the ropes when it came to making beats and mixing the final product, but notes that even greater credit belongs to a man named Mark Giles, who currently works as a reggae producer under the moniker “Jah Servant.”
“The person responsible for hip-hop as we know it, and the music as we know it in Alberta is a guy — who last I heard lived in Calgary, but used to live in Edmonton — named Mark Giles,” E-Dot said. “Giles is the guy who actually taught us how to make the beats and the music and stuff like that. He didn't even teach me; he taught the people who taught me.”
Of course, beyond the music, hip-hop as a culture entails more elements than just MCing and packaging beats. B-boying, through never as prominent as the musical side of the culture in Edmonton, had a more underground following. But it still had innovators who led the way for those who danced in crews, the biggest of which was Don Joyce.
Once the proud possessor of ITV's 3:30 a.m. timeslot back in 1997, competing against infomercials and syndicated sitcoms, Joyce's program Dance TV carved out a niche following with viewers, and allowed aspiring dancers to come on the show and bust their moves.
“There was an era [in Edmonton b-boying] in that there was Don Joyce, who was the guy that was really controlling the scene,” E-Dot explained. “He did a lot of the breakdancing, and he really lived it; he really documented a lot of things that were on TV. Way back in the day while MuchMusic was doing once a week hip-hop [...] Don Joyce was doing it local with cable television.”
Around the late '80s and into the early '90s, aspiring MCs, DJs, and b-boys began forming some of Edmonton's first hip-hop crews. Over in the northwest end of the city, a group of guys living on 182 Street formed the 1-8-2 Crew, which became one of the city's most prominent crews during the period.
A mouthpiece for the group, E-Dot — who now resides in Brooklyn — believes that “by the grace of God,” they were fortunate to be living in an area populated by a wealth of incredible artists. One of those artists was his childhood friend Andre Hamilton, who produced one of Edmonton's most notable hip-hop singles “Kawz 4 Alarm” as the solo artist Deadaliss in 1995.
“Andre got a keyboard called EPS-16, and I had never seen anything it before, and I was in his basement right on 182 Street and he was making music. I saw him sampling and making loops, and making all this incredible music, and it really opened my eyes to it,” E-Dot said.
"Prior to that in 1984, during the Olympics — Mary Lou Retton and stuff like that — I was really writing rhymes for myself and upon meeting Andre and growing up with him, seeing him coming into the music and performing, and kinda looking up to him at the time, I saw him doing this and I was like, 'whoa!' [...] He started getting shows, took me under his wing, and we opened up for pretty much every artist you could open up for back in the day, we were pretty much responsible for opening up.”
Establishing and promoting a crew was particularly difficult for up-and-coming Edmonton artists. In a region where hip-hop still wasn't a prevalent form of art, and small-town mentality trumped the New York know-how, nobody really knew the proper avenues with which to produce and distribute the music. Attempting to reach a wider audience was seen more as an individualistic venture, rather than a collaborative effort, during a time when everyone was technically a fresh, inexperienced artist.
“It was like crabs in a bucket as far as music in Alberta at the time. We didn't have a mentality of helping each other, and really nobody knew the business thoroughly, so really we didn't know what to do with this music that we had — we didn't know how to get it in stores, we didn't know the process of getting it mastered,” E-Dot explained. “Our music wasn't as good as everyone else's on a CD because we didn't know about the process of mastering, the business aspect, the distribution aspect, the publishing aspect — and anyone who did know wouldn't share that information.”
Competition between crews to establish their position on the Edmonton hip-hop hierarchy was also regarded as fierce — and not just in the musical sense. While MC battling was huge in the early stages of hip-hop culture in establishing legitimacy among the community, many crews had beefs with each other. E-Dot said this truth exists in communities everywhere, and comes from the east-coast braggadocio mentality that spawned from the swagger of New York hip-hop artists. Rest assured, though, he maintains that conflicts never resulted in any detrimental violence.
“Absolutely it escalated to physical violence several times. Justin Ryan [and The Maximum Definitive], and Altered State Alliance hated each other. There was always beefs, you know what I'm saying? But it never escalated to no killings or stabbings, it was more so 'put 'em up.' And I don't want to set the wrong image — it wasn't predominantly that. It happened once in a while. But there was definitely feelings of beef. When we'd see each other in the club, we played the tough guy and staring across the club and wasted your time for two hours — stupid shit.”
Around the same time that the 1-8-2 Crew was coming up, another street-based group and one of Edmonton's most successful Aboriginal hip-hop acts took from 1-8-2's example and named themselves after the 118 Street area in which they established themselves. Starting up out of a duplex, Won 18's Doug Bedard — who adapted his moniker “Plex” to the style of housing that he grew up in — and his crew were forced to make their way in a less than ideal economic situation.
“We grew up in low-income housing, a lot of Aboriginals — not saying all of us, I mean it'd be a generalization to say that all Indians are poor and stuff like that,” Plex recalled. “But for a lot of us, especially in the neighbourhood I grew up in, it was a low-income area and it was a less-desirable part of town where people would want to move, and that's where we ended up kinda getting cornered into.”
The struggle of making a hip-hop career work in times where income was low provided motivation for Plex, however, and he believes that the culture of hip-hop speaks to those who suffer through the plight of certain economic situations.
“I think that hip-hop, given the fact that it originated in New York and it was basically fostered in that area where there was low-income for all these people, basically came from their hearts and experiences. I think that Aboriginal people can really relate to that, especially my generation, because we come from a similar environment and it's basically speaking to us.
From his initial forays into the hip-hop community, Plex has been largely self-sufficient in terms of financing the necessary materials to start a career as a MC. Though there are some funding opportunities available to aspiring artists who can find it, much of the money necessary to fund equipment has been done through fundraising efforts.
“Until about two years ago, I'd never applied for any funding. I was really relying on groups like War Party, who were based out of Hobbema, to really build that template that a lot of Aboriginal hip-hop artists are using right now, which is to try and almost fundraise to do your projects, by doing community outreach gigs,” Plex explained.
“A lot of reserves want to see change, so the government finances a lot of program-oriented events, and I think that a lot of the Aboriginal groups from that area were able to get out and kind of keep it alive. Like, I think War Party wouldn't have seen any interest in doing it for the past 15 years unless they were able to have some sort of financial way to make it work, and we've always relied on that.”
Plex continually stresses the importance of hip-hop music and culture within the Aboriginal culture. Though many artists who come out of reservations these days, according to him, aren't rapping about their experiences as Aboriginals or many of the issues associated with them, such as poverty and addiction, the fact that they're able to use hip-hop as a means of creativity can only spell good things for their people at large.
“Aboriginal people — and I know this for a fact — are some of the most creative people on the planet,” Plex stated. “You see it in their artwork, you see it in their dance, you see it in their music. So I think it's been an easy thing for us to be able to share our stories and continue — for thousands of generations, we've been storytellers, so I think hip-hop is just an easy outlet for us to get into.”
But the beat don't stop there — be sure to check out Part 2 of Breakin' Down the E-Town Sound in next Thursday's edition of the Gateway when we discuss Edmonton's most successful acts and the current state of hip-hop in the city.